Iraq's long night

About the author
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

Across four years when the security situation in Iraq has consistently deteriorated, there have been many occasions when United States political leaders have insisted that the country had reached a turning-point and that circumstances would soon improve.

The founding incident in this pattern was on 1 May 2003, three weeks after the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime, when President Bush gave his "mission accomplished" speech on the flight-deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. There were further expressions of confidence even as the insurgency started to take shape in summer 2003, which were only temporarily allayed by the bombing of the United Nations headquarters and the Jordanian consulate in Baghdad on 19 August (which killed the UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, openDemocracy columnist Arthur Helton, and twenty-two others).

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

In July and December 2003, the killing of Qusay and Uday Hussein and the capture of their father, Saddam Hussein himself were confidently hailed as decisive events that were expected to disrupt the evolving insurgency. At one point in that first year, the claim was even made that the insurgents were little more than alienated, last-ditch "remnants" of the old regime, concentrated in a handful of extended families that the coalition knew of and were capable of dealing with. The term was one of which then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz were particularly fond.

When these early expectations proved unfounded, the US response was not to rethink but to reaffirm. The winding-up of Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004 was presented as a handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis, which would (notwithstanding the fact that the new Baghdad administration was appointed by the United States) undercut support for the insurgents. By November 2004, Fallujah and the so-called "Sunni triangle" were regarded as the epicentre of the insurgency, the capture of Fallujah became the key that would unlock the path to strategic success (see "No direction home", 25 November 2004).

In almost all cases the results have been similar - a brief lull in the violence followed by a re-emergence of the insurgency, often in districts away from immediate counterinsurgency operations. The second assault on Fallujah (the first took place in April 2004) was actually accompanied by an immediate outbreak of attacks in Mosul, so much so that the US military had to move over 2,000 troops to the northern city to try and restore order (see "Iraq in the mirror of Fallujah" 21 July 2005).

The anti-panic tendency

The subsequent two and a half years have done nothing to alter this fundamental pattern (see "Iraq's state of insecurity", 21 April 2005). Over this period, the insurgency has both gathered pace and transformed itself. It has been further compounded by increased sectarian conflict and greatly increased criminality, especially in Baghdad. The most recent US military response, formulated in the wake of the Bush administration's rejection of the Iraq Study Group's report of December 2006, is to increase the number of American troops in a wave ("surge") of coordinated deployments, while imposing tight security in parts of the capital (see "Global security: a vision for change", 12 April 2007).

The surge is still being implemented, and many in the US military are cautious about its early results. The still-influential neo-conservative opinion-formers in Washington are pushing a clearer line on what is happening, which has four components:

  • the insurgency and al-Qaida are just about interchangeable, so much so that all insurgents are terrorists and the entire war in Iraq is therefore at the heart of the war on terror
  • the Iraqi government is proving weak and incapable, and much of the blame for the continuing violence can be blamed on prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his associates
  • the hand of Iran lies behind much of the violence in Iraq
  • the surge is beginning to work and that it would be madness to change course now, when things are starting to come right in Iraq.

A new commentary in the Weekly Standard makes the key point: "Right now, the signs are more hopeful than they have been in many months. It would be a tragedy for America and Iraq to abandon the fight just as the possibility of success began to emerge" (see Frederick W Kagan, "Fighting to Win", Weekly Standard, 23 April 2007).

All four of the above assertions are to some degree or other open to challenge. The third point, for example, tends to elide the fact that the Shi'a militia group closest to Iran is not the one that currently causes the US military most concern (the Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr) but the factions linked to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), which have been relatively quiet of late. At the same time, allegations of Iran-made weapons reaching the Taliban in Afghanistan, made by senior US officials on 17 April, suggest that the US's depiction of an Iranian danger may be taking coherent shape.

Is the surge working?

The contrast between the caution of the US military about events in Iraq and the boldness of many rightwing analysts and politicians is striking. So what conclusions can be drawn at this stage about the success of the new US policy on the ground?

One question to ask is whether the large-scale security operation in Baghdad is resulting in an exporting of the violence to other areas. The six-month operation has only reached its third month, yet the indications are that old patterns are re-emerging: both with major attacks in Tal Afar and elsewhere, and with abundant evidence that cities quite close to Baghdad are almost entirely in insurgent hands.

An example of the latter trend is Baquba, just fifty-five kilometres north of the capital. It is reported to be dominated by around 2,000 insurgents, many of them long-term residents who have been more recently joined by men who have relocated from Baghdad (see Richard A Oppel Jr., "Iraq city becomes magnet for insurgents" International Herald Tribune, 15 April 2007).

Against this, political supporters of the surge policy could argue that such movements of insurgents do point to degree of progress in Baghdad itself. There are indeed some independent indications that sectarian violence and straightforward criminality have declined in the parts of the city that have faced the most intense US military activity (see Hameed al-Maliki, "Security Plan Brings Some Relief to Baghdadis", IWPR/Iraq Crisis Report 217, 5 April 2007).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, November 2006)

This too is only one part of a wider picture. Across Iraq as a whole, civilian casualties (as tracked by Iraqi government sources) rose from 1,645 in February 2007 to 1,861 in March; though independent sources suggest that even these high figures are underestimates (see IraqBodyCount).US military casualties, albeit far lower, have also increased. In the first nineteen days of April, seventy-three coalition soldiers were killed (sixty-five of them Americans) - the highest figure for more than two years - and over 160 Americans have been wounded in combat each week.

Moreover, in the past week, the violence has returned to Baghdad with an intensity that has come as a real shock to the US military leadership. The major incidents have included the bombing of a food market in the Shi'a district of Sadriya on 18 April that killed as many as 127 people; an attack on a police checkpoint in Sadr City the same day that killed thirty-five more; and a suicide-bombing of a fuel-lorry in the Shi'a district of Karrada on 19 April that killed at least eleven people. These three operations in particular seem designed to incite a reaction from Shi'a militias and thus intensify the sectarian conflict.

As such, it is two other attacks on 12 April in Baghdad that will actually have caused greater concern to US planners: the destruction of the Sarafiya bridge, one of the main city-centre crossings of the Tigris, and the suicide-bombing in the Iraqi parliament inside the "green zone". The bridge was secured by checkpoints at either end, and the parliament building is supposedly subject to multiple security checks; yet insurgents were able to attack both locations with impunity.

The cost of defeat

Even with all these developments in mind, it may still be too early to assess the US surge as a failure. Yet the indications at this stage closely reflect the pattern evident in many previous operations: an initial pause in the level of attacks, a diversion of insurgents to other parts of Iraq, and then a re-emergence at the heart of US coalition operations.

It is perhaps worth recalling what happened in Fallujah in November 2004. During the assault, thousands of people were killed and more than half of the city's 39,000 houses were damaged (10,000 of them were either destroyed or rendered too badly damaged to be habitable). Afterwards, the city was ringed with security, with controlled access at just four checkpoints; residents returning from refugee camps had to queue for as much as four hours before observing a 7pm curfew. Even under those circumstances of extreme control, it was only a matter of weeks before insurgents were actually manufacturing car-bombs within the city and using them to target US soldiers (see Ann Scott Tyson, "Increased Security In Fallujah Slows Efforts to Rebuild", Washington Post, 19 April 2005).

In February 2003, a month before the start of the Iraq war, the then United States army chief-of-staff General Eric Shinseki told a congressional hearing that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to control the country. Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz vehemently disagreed, and Shinseki retired from the army in June 2003. Four years later, the US military is seeking to gain control by adding barely 30,000 troops to a force that has so far proved unable to complete its task. A definitive judgment cannot yet be made, but it is beginning to look as if the surge will fail and violence will increase further. The implications for US politics are significant; the implications for Iraqi citizens are devastating.